ASP Makes Customer Service Self-Service | Article

video gameVideo games are hot. ATI Technologies is a graphics company that makes video cards for computer hard drives designed for gamers. When its customers have a problem with one of its 400 different video cards, they want a solution and they want it now.

Ahmad Rahman, Internet Development Leader, says ATI’s “primary business challenge” was its customer care. As the company grew, it added new outsourcing suppliers to handle different parts of the process. One supplier provided the software that took care of the 1,500 emails the company receives daily while another handled phone inquiries. Yet another application helped ATI customer service reps answer all the online support requests.

This created frustration for ATI’s customers who are accustomed to making moves with the click of a mouse. If they wanted support online, they had to fill in the same personal information with each supplier for every request. “Over and over again,” sighs Rahman.

In addition, ATI found it difficult to analyze its customer data. “The problem with multiple suppliers is all your customer data is in different databases stored different ways,” Rahman says. “It was impossible to figure out something simple like how many customers we have in North America.”

Finally, when one of the software products became unstable, it caused a ripple effect. ATI was worried that this chain reaction would crash its entire system.

So the manufacturer felt the best way to solve the problem was to migrate to a single outsourcing supplier.

Moving from Many Suppliers to One

This move turned out to be easy because one of the suppliers, who had worked with ATI for 10 years, couldn’t keep up with its growing business. Another refused to upgrade and customize its application to work better for ATI, and the third supplier had changed ownership five times. “There was absolutely no support for that product,” rues Rahman.

Its past experience made it clear what ATI wanted in an outsourcing provider: someone who knows the application and who would be willing to customize it for them. “We didn’t want to be cut off from the upgrade path,” says Rahman. The manufacturer was also interested in enhancing the online support experience for its customers. Of course, “cost was important,” he adds.

The ATI executive reports the company looked at a number of solutions. In November 2004 it selected Parature, an application service provider (ASP) based in McLean, Virginia, even though it was still in its start-up phase. “We liked what we saw. They had upgrades to their solution every four weeks and were constantly introducing new features. We felt if they were upgrading that often, they must be listening to their customers,” Rahman recalls. Today, he says 70 percent of every new Parature release contains new features, many based on ATI’s requests.

The Parature solution was also cost-effective. Rahman says he found better solutions in the marketplace but they were outside his budget. “We didn’t have the funds for the perfect solution,” he says.

The Parature Solution

Because Parature is an ASP, ATI was able to install Parature’s hosted application solution on its Web site; no hardware or software is needed. Parature has 12 integrated support modules, which include a knowledge base, discussion boards, a product catalog, email management, and reporting, among others.

Rahman says many customers use the portal to share tricks with their peers. The Parature application also allows ATI owners to register their new video cards online.

Since ATI has 400 products, it was able to load information about each product on its Web site using the Parature application. In addition, the company has over 1,000 knowledge-based articles about its products. The Parature search capability makes it easy for ATI users to find exactly what they are looking for.

ATI has six million visitors a month, but 65 percent visit the support area. Hopefully the Web site has the information customers need to solve their problem; one of the outsourcing goals is to make customer support as self-service as possible.

If that doesn’t work, however, they can fill out a trouble ticket online. The application sends an automated email to the customer with the designated fix. If the problem persists, the customer receives a call from a live customer service rep.

Now ATI’s customer service representatives have just one tool to work with when a customer emails or calls with a problem. “This has helped us streamline our customer service process,” says Rahman. He says his customers now fill in the requisite information online the first time they visit the site and then simply log in thereafter.

Parature software allows the customer service reps to see the history of all the customer’s transactions, something ATI could not do before. The Parature software also provides ATI’s customer service reps with need-to-know information like what video card the customer owns. “Now our staff can provide a personalized touch,” he says.

Outsourcing Benefits

Duke Chung, Parature CEO, says today 95 percent of ATI’s support center visitors find the information they need online. The ASP has decreased ATI’s incoming call volume by 80 percent.

Customers are happy because customer care is easy to deal with. And it’s available from everyone as long as they have Internet access.

Most important, ATI now has a much clearer idea of who its customers are. “If you don’t understand what your customer expects from you, you can’t reach out and get their attention,” says Rahman. In addition, he believes a good support experience is necessary “to retain customers and get repeat sales.” Adds Chung, “We taught them how to translate their customer data into information they can use to build their business.”

Starting from a College Project

Chung and friends were computer majors at Cornell University. They developed an Instant Message tool that connected a Web site visitor to a Web chat room so the visitors could converse with a support person real-time. “We never planned to become a customer relationship management (CRM) company,” says Chung.

HP was the Cornell kids’ first customer. It seems college students would rather go to their own campus support to get their laptop fixed than go to the HP site. HP was able to support the Cornell student body of 25,000 with a live support staff of five people because students were able to fix their own problems through Chung’s self-service information guides 95 percent of the time.

The college students offered their software service for free. With graduation approaching, they polled their customers to see what services they needed that they would pay for. Almost everyone replied their CRM software solution still required them to have a live person to answer lots of questions. “They wanted a portal so they could publish information on the Web to make customer service as self-service as possible,” recalls Chung. “They wanted their customers to be able to find the information they needed themselves 24/7.”

The entrepreneurs–Chung and three other Cornell classmates–graduated in 2000 and started Parature with money from family and friends. Since then, the ASP has grown organically from its own revenues plus angel investors in the Washington DC area. Last year the company’s first angel investor assumed the chairman’s role.

Today the company has 300 clients and 2.5 million end users. Most are small-to-medium sized businesses who can’t afford an ERP solution. It can now build its solution in six languages and offers all customers a 30-day free trial.

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